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NFL AM: Slimmer Jameis Winston Has Chance To Take Leap in Year Two

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Being the top pick in the NFL Draft comes with high expectations and a certain degree of skepticism from outside observers. But few first overall picks have been as highly criticized and analyzed as Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.

However, after a rookie season that met or exceeded most expectations, Winston’s stock is on the rise in a way few thought possible so quickly. And as he gets set to begin his second season at the helm of the Buccaneers’ ship, he’s in position to swiftly move up the ranks of the league’s elite at the position.

Ahead of Bucs training camp, which opens in exactly one week, Winston has been showing off improved physical fitness, something he’s been criticized for in the past, especially in the weeks and months leading up to the draft and prior to his rookie season.

A photo posted by Jameis Winston (@jaboowins3) on

But Winston showed during that freshman campaign at the helm of the Bucs that not only was he ready for the grind of the NFL season physically, he had the talent to stick from the start.

The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner hit some bumps as he acclimated to the pros, including a four-interception day in a Week 4 loss to the eventual NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were the one team that seemed to have Winston’s number all year — and that of nearly every other quarterback in the league for that matter — they picked him off twice more in a Week 17 Bucs loss in Carolina as well. But otherwise, Winston was exceptional, especially after Tampa Bay’s Week 6 bye.

His signature performance came in Week 11 at Philadelphia, when Winston threw for five touchdowns in a 45-17 Bucs route of the Eagles on the road. Over the final seven weeks of the season, Winston had just one multi-interception game, the season finale at Carolina, and three multi-touchdown games. He finished the season having started in all 16 games with over 4,000 yards passing, a 58 percent completion rate and 22 touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. And seven of those picks came in the first four weeks of the season, the overall numbers not doing justice to the progress he made during the year.

Now Winston must continue making such progress if he plans to move up the ranks of quarterbacks around the league, and more importantly, if he plans to help make the Buccaneers into a playoff team once again in the challenging NFC. The Bucs saw a four-win improvement in Winston’s rookie season and they’ll need to take another such leap to make the postseason in 2016.

One thing that should help is the fact that Winston’s comfort level certainly increased over the course of the 2015 season and he should be in even better position to run the team’s offense in his second season. Because although the coaching staff has shifted slightly with Lovie Smith out as head coach and last year’s offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter rising to the head position, the scheme remains the same for the Tampa Bay offense.

“I just feel like we’re more comfortable in the offense because it is Year Two for us, and we’re just excited,” Winston said. “We’re excited to see how we can improve on our numbers that we – hopefully we can match them or better them because we had a great offensive year last year.”

Koetter has also said he plans to give Winston more control and responsibility in his second season, something the 22-year-old quarterback had little of under Smith and Koetter last season. The duo felt that necessary as Winston acclimated to the league, but it may have put a restrictor plate on his playmaking ability. Winston only ran with the ball 53 times last season, compiling 210 yards. Though he did rush for six touchdowns.

But if Koetter takes the reins off this year, it could be a big campaign for the 6′ 4″ Winston.

“Jameis can handle a lot and does handle a lot every day,” Koetter said during minicamp. “He can handle more than we’re giving him. Compared to last year at this time, he knows way, way more than he did a year ago at this time. Also if you remember a year ago at this time, he was probably throwing three or four interceptions every single day and you saw even when things broke down today, Jameis pulled the ball down and ran. That’s one thing we’ve been working hard on is our scramble drill. I think that’s an area that we’ve improved.”

Because of his size, stature and athletic talent, Winston has drawn some lofty comparisons to division rival Cam Newton, and adding an effective and imposing running game to his repertoire would go a long way toward catapulting Winston toward Newton’s level. But it could also involve some growing pains as it relates to decision-making. It certainly did for Newton. The Carolina quarterback was a rollercoaster as it related to effectiveness over his first four years before peaking last season.

Tampa Bay can likely expect similar out of Winston. But the thing that continues to set Jameis Winston apart is his ability to exceed expectations through the work he puts in. He’s been set up with an opportunity to fail every step of the way and hasn’t, and many around him believe that’s because of how dedicated he is to having success, as teammate Louis Murphy said this summer.

“Words can’t really explain how impressed I am with his ability to focus on his craft,” Murphy said. “People don’t understand how serious he takes this. It’s incredible how well he listens; he hangs on every word. I played with [quarterbacks] Cam Newton, Eli Manning and JaMarcus Russell, who were all first-overall picks in the draft, and there’s just something different about Jameis and his approach to the game.”

The Bucs are hopeful that approach and the talent of their franchise signal caller can get them back to the postseason in 2016 for the first time in nearly a decade.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys